Reminding ourselves of the story of progress

You hear the word “story” a lot these years. One way of thinking about the current national mood of discontent is that we—our feckless Congress but the rest of us, too– have lost track of the story. What the story is or was and where we were in it. It’s as if the bookmark had fallen out of a book you were reading.

I’m not talking about personal story now, our own career or family trajectory, but the national story, a widely shared notion of what constitutes progress. The part of everyone’s personal story that is the national story.

The story taught—in school and elsewhere– to most of us born between the 1930s and, say, the 1970s, was that things were getting better and better. (After the Great Depression and WW2 they had nowhere to go but up.) The economy, unions and all, was a rising tide and it was indeed floating a lot of boats. Working conditions and wages would continue to improve, blacks would get free at last, women would be liberated. America would continue its role in WW2 of being a great force for good in the world.

This optimistic story involved a major rewrite of the the story taught a generation or two earlier. The story based on the idea of unfettered capitalism as the engine of progress, individual initiative rewarded, better mousetraps and all that, had been rewritten by the striking reforms of the 1930s and 40s, incorporating the new idea that unregulated capitalism had been a wild beast, systematically turning Horatio Alger into a Robber Baron, and needed taming.

The isolationism of the Monroe Doctrine had been rewritten by the huge rescue mission of WW2.

The Manifest Destiny story had for generations added an inspirational dimension to the personal stories of Europeans developing the continent (this is a New World, a new broom sweeping clean). By the 1960s we were ready for a revision which included tragic awareness of the cost of that development in near genocide and slavery.

Not only were we taught these dramatic revisions; in fact a new part of the story was that this was the kind of country in which such rewriting could take place. If we haven’t always gotten it right, we get it right in the end, often by the agency of we the people in the form of government. We are a work in progress.

If as a country we’ve been wandering, if we’ve lost track of that story of what constitutes progress, then it might help to remind ourselves what the plot was when there still seemed to be one, where we had come from and where we were headed.

Are we perhaps in need of a major rewrite, a whole new story? Maybe. But certain storylines seem unlikely:

How about for women the story of reversing Roe v Wade and getting back to coat hanger abortions? How about a story in which women’s liberation in general is reversed and women herded back into their natural habitat of the kitchen where they belong? Would you tell that to kids?

As inspirational as the white supremacy story was to many of us not many decades back, and though there are no doubt many who still cherish that story privately, who proposes out loud the plotline that we return to the good old days of lynchings and segregation?

The statistical reality of the past few decades of declining prosperity for the many belies the story of progress. So how about a story of capitalism with government off its back, the 1% with more and more money and power, the rest with less and less? Would that fly? Not even those who profit by the decline in unions and wages dare tell it that way.

If you want to test the viability of a story of national progress, see how it sounds spoken out loud, or taught to kids in school.

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